In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, many beloved public spaces were abruptly closed or had their access severely restricted. At the time, the public generally resigned itself to the new restrictions as a necessary evil in a time of war.
Fifteen years later, the public has stopped noticing. In some cases, such as scenic overlooks at certain dams, the government spent millions on new roads and bridges to allow the public access from less risky positions. But in other places, the restrictions remain, and it's the public space itself that has faded from view.
A good example of this is a scenic shoreline on Lake Washington in Seattle, that's home to an outdoor sculpture called A Sound Garden. It's a series of metal tubes and towers that whistle and moan in the wind. It used to be a popular destination for Seattleites; the sculpture inspired the name of the '90s grunge band Soundgarden.
But the area is on land owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and access was severely restricted after Sept. 11. Nowadays, you can visit only during weekday business hours, when the guard at the checkpoint has enough time to take your photo ID and sign you in.
The result? A lot of newcomers to Seattle don't even know A Sound Garden exists, and it's rare to see more than one or two visitors at a time.
"This security is not too bad. They leave you alone — once you get on here," says Rick Johnson, a lifelong Seattleite who comes here to take pictures of a nesting osprey. But he is careful where he points his telephoto lens. "They don't want you taking pictures of the buildings."
Restrictions like this are a vestige of the security mindset that followed Sept. 11 and the Oklahoma City bombing, a mindset that assumed terrorists would seek out government buildings or other high-profile targets for so-called spectaculars. But that is no longer the assumption.
"The target selection has kind of shifted," says Deputy Chief Mike Downing, who runs counterterrorism at the Los Angeles Police Department. "We're seeing a shift toward civilian soft targets now, so, mass gathering areas, trains, malls, movie theaters, sporting events, etc."
With self-radicalized terrorists potentially targeting any public space, heavy restrictions on certain places seem to make less sense. Even in Lower Manhattan, some people have begun to chafe at post-Sept. 11 security measures — such as vehicle bans on parts of Wall Street.
"There are nearly three times as many people living in Lower Manhattan today as there were on 9/11," says Jessica Lappin, president of the Alliance for Downtown New York. "If you live here, you want to be able to pull up and unpack your groceries."
Her organization isn't against heightened security, but she says it's hard to get anyone to even rethink the post-Sept. 11 restrictions.
"There's really no mechanism or process to get a re-evaluation of some of these measures, and I think that's what people find frustrating," Lappin says.
Susan Silberberg, a city planner, has taught at MIT and studied the effects of post-Sept. 11 security measures — Jersey barriers, concrete bollards and lobby security desks, things she says really have changed the feel of public spaces in America.
"You're kind of missing a level of, I don't know, the whimsicality and serendipity that comes from living in an urban environment," she says.
She echoes Lappin's description of security "inertia" — once a restriction goes up, it rarely comes down.
"There are very few public officials and even private building owners who want to be the one who makes the decision to soften some of these rules, in case something happens," Silberberg says. "I really don't see things receding."
Still, there may soon be an exception to this rule. The Bay Area Rapid Transit system is considering reopening the restrooms in underground stations. They've been closed since shortly after Sept. 11, out of fear that a terrorist might use them to stash explosives out of sight.
"People have to go! It's just human nature, and we get it," says BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost.
She says this is one security measure the public has never learned to accept. Some people even tell BART that keeping the restrooms closed is like letting the terrorists win.
"We hear a lot from our riders that by keeping them closed, we're just showing [the terrorists] that they still control our lives," she says. "And no one wants that."
But she says BART's elected board of directors is still deeply divided on the wisdom of reopening restrooms. Urban members are for it; suburban members remain worried about the potential risks. So they're proceeding cautiously: They'll soon vote on a pilot plan to reopen restrooms in two stations by spring of 2018 and only after extensive remodeling jobs that will make the restrooms more open to public view, similar to restrooms in airports.
RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
One of the immediate effects of 9/11 was heightened security in public places - more screening and restrictions and even closure of some areas Americans had once taken for granted as open. NPR's Martin Kaste visited one of those places 15 years later.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: If you live in Seattle, you may have heard of an outdoor sculpture called A Sound Garden on the shore of Lake Washington. It's a cluster of metal towers and tubes, and on windy days, they sing and they moan. Here's a YouTube recording from a few years ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)
KASTE: A Sound Garden used to be a favorite hang out here. In the '80s, it even inspired the name of a certain grunge band. But after 9/11, visiting this spot became more of a chore.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hi. How are you?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How can I help you today?
KASTE: I wanted to go see the Sound Garden.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah. You got your current photo ID?
KASTE: Current photo ID.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.
KASTE: The problem is A Sound Garden is on federal land. It's right by the regional offices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. At first, it was almost completely off limits, but nowadays you can visit on weekdays during business hours if the guard has enough time to sign you in.
RICK JOHNSON: This security is not too bad. They leave you alone, you know, once you get on here.
KASTE: Rick Johnson still comes here to photograph the birds, but he's careful where he points his telephoto lens.
JOHNSON: They don't want you taking pictures of the buildings.
KASTE: Even though they're just scientific buildings, as far as we know.
JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah.
KASTE: Precautions like this are a vestige of the post-9/11, post-Oklahoma-City security mentality when it was assumed that the terrorists would target government sites. But that's not the assumption anymore, not after Paris, San Bernardino and the Pulse Nightclub. Deputy Chief Mike Downing runs counterterrorism for the Los Angeles Police Department.
MIKE DOWNING: We're seeing a shift towards civilian soft targets now - so mass gathering areas, trains, malls, movie theaters, sporting events etc.
KASTE: And since any place can be a target now, it seems less clear why there should be tighter restrictions for certain places. You're even starting to hear that in lower Manhattan where the growing residential population is chafing against the barriers to cars on certain streets.
JESSICA LAPPIN: If you live here, you want to be able to pull up, unpack your groceries.
KASTE: That's Jessica Lappin, the president of the Downtown Alliance. She's all for security, but she wishes that some of the post-9/11 restrictions could be reviewed.
LAPPIN: But there's really no mechanism or process to get a re-evaluation of some of these measures, and I think that's what people find frustrating.
KASTE: This idea of a kind of security inertia is echoed by Susan Silberberg. She's a city planner in Boston who's taught at MIT and studied the effects of post-9/11 security. She says when restrictions ratchet up, they rarely come down.
SUSAN SILBERBERG: And I think at the end of the day, there are very few public officials and even private building owners who want to be the one who makes the decision to soften some of these rules in case something happens. I don't really see things receding.
KASTE: Still, this rule may have at least one exception soon in California.
ALICIA TROST: People have to go. It's just human nature, and we get it.
KASTE: That's Alicia Trost, spokeswoman for BART, Bay Area Rapid Transit, and she's talking about restrooms. They were closed in underground stations after 9/11, but that was one security measure that the public never really learned to accept, at least that's what people keep telling BART.
TROST: We don't want the terrorists to win, and having something as simple as a restroom being closed after so many years - and 9/11 happened long ago. That's also one school of thought we hear a lot from our riders.
KASTE: So the BART board of directors will soon vote on a pilot plan to reopen restrooms in two stations in about a year and a half. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.